The United States Vs Billie Holiday

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The United States Vs Billie Holiday
"Day not only captures the vocals perfectly, which is no mean feat considering the smoke in Holiday's voice, but gives a feel for the star, retaining a sense of steely resolve in the face of alcoholism, heroin addiction and her often violent relationships"

This biopic of blues superstar Billie Holiday zeroes in on the last decade or so of her life as she find herself increasingly targeted by the Feds, who are engaged in a vendetta against her for her haunting - to this day - renditions of Strange Fruit, which pulls no punches in its depiction of lynchings, a photo from which also opens his film. The subject of lynchings - which as director Lee Daniels underlines is still very much an issue in the US with the proposed bill to declare it a hate crime only finally passed by the Senate this time last year - echoes through the film, with the song itself appearing at its heart, a sobering reminder of its power and, by extension, its incendiary effect on the government of the time.

The big selling point of the film as a whole is the raw and multifaceted central performance from musician Andra Day. It's her first-time feature role but you would never know it and she brings a similar sort of mix of emotions to her performance that Renee Zellweger employed in her Judy biopic (and it's worth noting, of course, that Garland's more 'middle-class and white' addictions were largely ignored by the authorities). Day not only captures the vocals perfectly, which is no mean feat considering the smoke in Holiday's voice, but gives a feel for the troubled star, retaining a sense of steely resolve in the face of alcoholism, heroin addiction and her often violent relationships.

Copy picture

There's no faulting her when she's on screen and she's well supported by a soulful turn from Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher, the agent tasked by his white overlords with bringing her down and who finds himself beguiled by her along the way. But Precious director Daniels has always been scattergun when it comes to direction - often drawing attention to his own technique when he should be letting his stars do the shining. The same thing happens here, with him often cutting away from Day's incredible performance in order to showcase the sleazy side of her life elsewhere. He also begins to muddle in black and white imagery with colour, another 'technique' that is largely to be there for the sake of itself.

Sometimes the showboating works - notably in a drug trip episode that takes us back into the horror of Holiday's childhood and which packs more information and emotion about it into a few minutes than most filmmakers would achieve in half an hour - but just as often his flourishes come across as a distraction. The scoring also feels a little on the nose as it leans very heavily into All of Me in a way that feels rather trite compared to the sea of emotions Holiday is experiencing and Day is conveying.  Suzan-Lori Parks' writing, too, is sometimes wayward, with an interview framing device involving Leslie Jordan in a preposterous wig never really working as it should. Still, rejoice, as there is not one, but two Lady Days here - Billie and Andra, see it for both.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2021
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The United States Vs Billie Holiday packshot
Biopic charting the way Billie Holiday found herself targeted by the Feds over her song Strange Fruit.

Director: Lee Daniels

Writer: Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the book by Johann Hari

Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Tyler James Williams, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Natasha Lyonne

Year: 2021

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: US

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